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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Muscle Car Murder: California Judge Declares Mistrial After Improper Impeachment

On Tuesday, a San Mateo County judge declared a mistrial in the trial of Mohammed Monie.  Monie, a muscle car enthusiast from San Francisco, was on trial for murdering a man in 1989 for car parts.  Specifically, it was alleged that Monie directed then 14 year-old Jesse Rodriguez to fatally shoot Robert Perruquet so that Monie could strip Perruquet's car of parts.

Helping Monie's case was the fact that Perruquet's body still has never been found.  Hurting his case was the fact Rodriguez planned to testify against Monie at his trial.  Rodriguez, however, never got that opportunity because before he could testify a police witness disclosed to jurors that Monie had previously been on probation based upon a misdemeanor drunk driving conviction.  Upon defense counsel's request, the judge declared a mistrial because this prior conviction had previously been deemed inadmissible.  Under the California Evidence Code, the judge acted correctly.

Under California Evidence Code Section 788, "[f]or the purposes of attacking the credibility of a witness, it may be shown by examination of the witness or by the record of the judgment that he has been convicted of a felony...."  Meanwhile, California has a long and confusing history as to when misdemeanor convictions can be used to impeach a witness, but it appears to have resolved the question in People v. Harris, 118 P.3d 545 (Cal. 2005), when it found that "[p]ast criminal conduct involving moral turpitude that has some logical bearing on the veracity of a witness in a criminal proceeding is admissible to impeach, subject to the court's discretion under Evidence Code section 352.Evidence Code section 352 states that "[t]he court in its discretion may exclude evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the probability that its admission will (a) necessitate undue consumption of time or (b) create substantial danger of unfair prejudice, or confusing the issues, or of misleading the jury."

Thus, the prosecutor could not use Monie's misdemeanor drunk driving conviction to impeach him because it was not a felony conviction and because it did not cover criminal conduct that had some logical bearing on his veracity (crimes such as perjury and tax fraud would fall under this category).

California thus has somewhat different rules regarding impeachment than all federal courts and many state courts.  Like California Evidence Code Section 788, Federal Rule of Evidence 609(a) allows for a witness to be impeached by a prior felony conviction.  However, whereas California allows impeachment in criminal cases based upon veracity-bearing crimes, under Federal Rule of Evidence 609(b), federal courts allow for witnesses to be impeached in both criminal and civil cases by convictions for crimes requiring proof of an act of dishonesty or false statements. 

Furthermore, while it appears that California allows for these forms of impeachment when the probative value of the evidence substantially outweighs its prejudicial effect, regardless of the witness being impeached and the date of the conviction, the federal rules shift the balancing of probative value and prejudicial effect when the witness being impeached is a criminal defendant and when the conviction is more than ten years old.

I'm not sure why California limits non-felony impeachment to criminal cases, and it appears to me that the federal rules' balance shifting is more responsive to different situations than California's one-size-fits-all approach.  That said, it appears as if federal courts struggle with the balance shifting approach.

-CM

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